July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Englewood–Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich will share stories of how he became a committed Jew in the Soviet Union, and kept his faith despite intense physical and psychological punishment, in talks on Shabbos, September 12–13 at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood. He will be at the shul Motzei Shabbos to sign copies of his book, Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival, published in English in 2012.

Mendelevich became involved with a group of young Jews cleaning up the cemetery at Rumbuli, Riga, where Jews had been massacred in World War II. Through the next years, Mendelevich made contacts with other groups, read Jewish books in translation and began learning Hebrew and how to pray from a siddur. His skill in learning languages would stand him in good stead later in prison.

In February of 1970, after Mendelevich’s second application to immigrate to Israel was turned down, he embarked on an audacious plan that was to change his life forever and put his beliefs to the ultimate test. He was about to become a hijacker.

The plan called for a group of 12 to buy all the seats on a small airplane, install their own pilot, and fly to Sweden as the first stop en route to Israel. They put the plan into action but were arrested before making it onto the plane. It was a tortuous 11 years until, freed at last, he boarded an airplane that took him to Israel.

Rabbi Mendelevich told JLBC he has no qualms about trying to hijack an airplane. “This had nothing in common with terrorism,” he said. “We tried to leave illegally because we were not permitted to leave legally. And it was not going to be a hijacking in the sense that you intimidate passengers and crew and force the pilot to take you somewhere. This was a small plane, and all the passengers were Jews who wanted to go. No one was in danger. We felt like we were hostages and we were attempting to break away. I believe 100% that we were justified. And our struggle for freedom broke Soviet power, world-wide.”

Prison camp Soviet-style involved unceasing efforts to break a prisoner mentally. Rabbi Mendelevich writes in his book, “Ever since childhood we heard horror stories about KGB cruelty. The anticipatory fear can break a prisoner even before interrogation begins.” A prison is not a yeshiva, but Mendelevich used the time he had to learn Hebrew, English, Jewish history, and prayers. Not that he could just whip out a book, lie down on a cot, and read. Books were smuggled in and had to be hidden. He copied pages of a siddur on endless tiny pieces of paper he hid in matchbooks, in case the book was confiscated. From this exercise, he realized that he had memorized the prayers and no one could take them away.

“In prison, you have a lot of time. Some people get lost, they don’t know what to do with themselves,” Rabbi Mendelevich said. “I love languages. If you love something, you’re crazy about it. To me, just to look in the dictionary, to learn specific words and expressions got me excited, like drinking wine.”

The dream of aliyah had been so strong, coupled with his unceasing study in prison, that when Yosef Mendelevich finally arrived in Israel, he was ready. He was anxious to find a profession and considered international relations. But friends and associates–even the Lubavitcher Rebbe–dissuaded him. “They said, ‘You can’t do it. You are a symbol. You kept Yiddishkeit in prison. You can’t just be a regular citizen.’” He studied for eight years and received rabbinical certification. Now he teaches in a yeshiva for Baleei Teshuva from all over the world. He still gets together with former friends from the Soviet Union, including Natan Sharansky. But they have all taken different paths.

Today he is the proud father of seven children and numerous grandchildren. All have stayed religious. His son Avraham Yitzchak Rahamim Mendelevich was at the end of his IDF service, before returning to his hesder yeshiva, when he was sent to Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Under fire in a tank, he recited Tehillim, as he promised his father he would do every day, and the crew survived.

How did he keep his faith in the Gulag under such harsh conditions? “After seven years in prison, I had some fear of death,” Rabbi Mendelevich said. “I had a vision of a big, strong tree with deep roots in the ground and small leaves. I thought that small leaf was me. But then I realized I am the tree itself. Even if the limb falls down, the tree will continue. I belong to something strong and everlasting–the Jewish people. This thought gave me tremendous power to overcome my fear.” And now he is deeply rooted in the soil of his beloved Eretz Yisrael.

By Bracha Schwartz

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